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One year ago, on a flat 121-acre plot of sandy soil just southeast of Sarasota, Fla. the doors were opened to something called the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy. Built at a cost of $1� million by Ewing Kauffman, owner of the big-league Royals, the academy was supposed to take young athletes not versed in baseball but otherwise extremely gifted and send them on their way to the majors. Not since Bill Veeck signed a midget had baseball produced such a laugh.
Well, who's laughing now? At the end of last week the best record in all of professional baseball—a staggering .813 winning percentage—had been hammered out by the first graduating class of Kauffman's academy, whose young, overlooked misfits were making a farce out of the Gulf Coast rookie league, a federation otherwise composed of the top draft choices of the Minnesota Twins, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians.
The Academy Royals had won 30 of 37 games, and in one outing stole nine bases. The pitching staff had more shutouts than the league's other six teams combined, and the triple, supposedly the most exciting offensive play in baseball, was being exhibited as never before. Unaided by anything as fast as an artificial surface, the Royals had banged out 24 three-base hits.
The idea of the academy was, and is, so futuristic that many baseball executives don't believe it even now. In 1970 a total of 7,682 youngsters between the ages of 16 and 21 were scouted by the academy's staff, and 42 were selected for the first class. None had been considered seriously by any other major league team during the drafting periods and eight had never played even one inning of high school baseball. Today 19 members of the original group remain at the academy. Four others already have been advanced into Kansas City's minor-league system. When the decision was made to enter the academy team into the Gulf Coast rookie league as a unit, many baseball men—including scouts—said it would fall fiat on its face.
Late last week the second class began arriving in Sarasota, and whereas the first had nothing but hopes of success, the new group had some first-place facts to follow. The outsiders had excuses.
"They are winning because they have played together for a year," some said.
Nonsense, retorted Syd Thrift, the academy's director. "People say that we can execute better than teams that have been together for only six weeks. Heck, you can execute all day and never win if you have players who have weak arms or are slow runners. Our players have good arms and speed."
Supposedly the Royals' biggest stumbling block was going to be pitching. Any scout worth his weight in expense vouchers will testify that it is impossible for a youngster with a live arm to slide past the draft unnoticed. Well, somebody must be wrong somewhere. The Royals are loaded down with unheralded live arms. Of the 12 pitchers used most on the Royals' staff, 11 have won games. Tom Dugan has won three times without losing—and he drives the academy bus.
The other evening Clark Griffith of the Minnesota Twins sat at Payne Park in Sarasota and watched the young Royals. "Any time a team has a record as good as this one's," said Griffith, "you take a look at it. It's possible this team already should be playing in a higher league. Mr. Kauffman's idea is ultraprogressive. People are now watching his players closer than ever before." Eight of Minnesota's top 10 choices from the summer free-agent draft are playing in the league, but with the season almost over, the Twins are 14 games behind the Royals.
Billy Herman, the former Brooklyn Dodger star second baseman, has watched the academy team from the start. "Last fall," he says, "they played junior college teams and I thought they looked real bad. But it's amazing how the players developed."